Thursday, 12 January 2012

Elephant No. 102: Mobile

At a fibre arts guild meeting a couple of days ago, I was talking to an artist who's making a mobile using pieces of scrap metal she's picked up from everywhere in the world she's lived. I love her idea, but can't really do something like that in a day. Instead, I thought I'd try making an elephant mobile using cut-up tin cans.

Mobiles fall into the category of kinetic sculpture, and usually demonstrate the principle of equilibrium. Most mobiles have a series of rods, from which objects or additional rods are suspended. The objects hanging from the rods usually balance one another, keeping the rods relatively horizontal. In a traditional mobile, each rod hangs from a single string, allowing the rod and its objects to slowly rotate. Because of their motion, mobiles are often hung over babies' cribs, providing both entertainment and visual stimulation.

Alexander Calder is considered the father of the sculptural mobile. The word "mobile" was first suggested by artist Marcel Duchamp in 1931 to describe Calder's early mechanized work. At the time, "mobile" described moving sculptures driven by motors or cranks. The word later came to define Calder's free-moving works instead. 

Influenced by the work of Abstract artists such as Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró, Calder invented a sculptural form in which brightly coloured abstract shapes were connected to one another by wires. The individual pieces were attached in such a way that they not only balanced one another, but could also move either independently or as a whole. Calder became famous for his mobiles, producing numerous examples from the 1930s until his death in 1976.

Big Red, 1959
Alexander Calder (1898–1976)
Collection of the San Jose Fine Arts Museum

Today, unusual mobiles are still produced by artists and craftspeople, as are mass-produced versions made of everything from wooden shapes to stuffed toys.

For today's elephant mobile, I went out and bought some tin and aluminum cans. I chose whatever was colourful at nearby Chinese, West Indian and South Asian grocery stores, with little regard for their contents. One thing that surprised me is how few products come in printed tins anymore. There has been a significant shift to paper labels, which limited my colour options to a certain extent. I ended up mostly with drinks ranging from "mangosteen juice drink" to "nata de coco in pineapple juice", as well as non-drink items such as "spicy Chinese mackerel" and "Madagascar green peppercorns".

The first thing I did was empty, wash and dry the cans. Because I was raised not to waste things, I tasted everything I bought. I couldn't bring myself to finish anything, but a few things were tasty. Some, however—like an unsweetened green tea in a can—were definitely not for me. Luckily, I didn't need the spicy Chinese mackerel for this project.

Once the cans were emptied and cleaned, it was time to cut them into metal sheets. I used aviation tin snips for most of this—one of my best tool purchases ever. Aviation tin snips (at least the ones I have) have serrated edges, which makes them a lot easier to use than regular tin snips. They also don't deform the metal as much as regular tin snips. For some of the thinner cans today, I also used scissors, since cutting the thin cans is more like cutting foil than cutting metal.

I ended up with ten disassembled cans in various sizes, and with various usable surfaces. Amazingly, I only cut myself once—amazing, because this is exactly the kind of activity that usually results in all sorts of injuries.

Next, I made a trio of elephant templates. I thought I might need different sizes, but in the end I used only the largest size.

To cut the tins, I laid the template over the printed side of the tin, and traced around it with a permanent marker, choosing the most colourful parts of each printed design. The marker easily wipes off afterwards, so not to worry if (like me) you don't cut perfectly.

I then cut out each elephant with the tin snips. I also tried to make sure I had facing pairs in each weight of tin can by flipping over the template for every second elephant I cut. I cut them in pairs by weight/thickness of tin can, thinking this would help ensure that the pairs would balance one another when attached to their respective sticks. 

Once I had ten blanks, I pierced the top of each with a small finishing nail and a hammer. I also decided to leave in the curve rather than beat them flat, because I liked the way it looked. If I had decided to flatten them, I would probably have placed the elephants between several sheets of newspaper, and pounded them with a rubber mallet.

To string them, I used nylon fishing line and some dowels I got at the dollar store. I notched the end of each dowel, but in the end found it easier to simply tie the fishing line around the dowel without slotting it into the ends. It's easier to balance the mobile later if you can slide the nylon strings around a bit.

Next came the part that drove me crazy. I was fine with the first six elephants on three dowels. Where it got incredibly difficult was trying to find a way to add the other four elephants to this configuration. I cut down dowels, made new dowels, restrung everything multiple times, but just couldn't get all ten elephants to look good together. The extras either hung down looking awkward and junky, or were all squished up with the original six. 

After nearly two hours of fiddling with it, I gave up and left it at six. I think I either need just the six, or a lot more than ten for this kind of mobile. I tried to find something online in a similar configuration, but there was nothing that would have worked for this number of elephants, and this particular arrangement.

Then there was the challenge of photographing the mobile. It's actually quite wide, which made it impossible to capture in a single shot—I don't have enough neutral walls, or enough white background paper. Trying to photograph a mobile against any other colour of wall—especially a wall with stuff on it—is pointless, because there is so much space between the dangly bits on the mobile that they look lost and disembodied. 

I eventually tried hanging it from the shower rod in my bathroom, with white tiles as a backdrop. It's not ideal, but at least the whole thing is in the shot.

In real life, this is actually quite fun to look at, although I wish I could have figured out how to hang all ten elephants. I may rethink the whole thing when I have a bit more time, and see if I can work out some attractive ten-elephant configuration. But I'm definitely not cutting more.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants have a very finely tuned sense of balance, and dislike uneven ground. When walking over unsteady or unfamiliar soil, an elephant will use the outside of its trunk to tap the earth, testing whether or not the ground is solid enough to walk on. Once the elephant has determined that it is safe, it moves a forefoot onto the area just tested. This is followed by the corresponding hind foot, placed precisely in the first footprint.

Elephants use a variety of measures to maintain their balance, including a sixth "toe" facing backwards inside the foot. When performing circus tricks such as balancing on balls or walking a tightrope, elephants also use counterbalancing measures such as raising an opposing leg or extending their trunks. 

Elephants have a hard time balancing on their hind legs, however, due primarily to their bulk. Despite this difficulty, when seeking fresh leaves or fruit high up in their favourite trees, elephants have been known to stand on their hind legs, stretching themselves and their trunks to the fullest possible extent, in order to reach the topmost branches.

Elephant reaching for leaves high up
in a tree in Zimbabwe.
Photo: ©2011 Michael Poliza/Caters News Agency

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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